CALIFORNIA

L.A. County paid millions to troubled foster care agency despite warnings

Criminal allegations against foster care operators raise questions about effectiveness of L.A. County reforms

Los Angeles County officials paid a foster care nonprofit millions of dollars in taxpayer money even though government investigators repeatedly warned of problems with the organization, including allegations of financial misconduct and child abuse.

County officials eventually severed ties with Little People's World late last year after the Los Angeles County district attorney filed criminal charges against the nonprofit's executive director, CSJ Kidogo, and his wife, Kitaji Kidogo, accusing them of embezzling and misappropriating $460,000 of government funds.

The Kidogos have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. One of their attorneys, Austin Dove, said prosecutors were trying to hold the couple accountable for financial bookkeeping rules that were never properly communicated by county officials.

The criminal allegations against the Kidogos raise questions about the effectiveness of reforms implemented in recent years by the county's Department of Children and Family Services to better monitor the foster care providers it hires. Two years ago, the agency hired additional staff to guard against financial misconduct following a series of stories by The Times that revealed that money intended for the care of children was often misspent by contract providers.

In some cases, money was spent on personal vacations, luxury cars, fine china and salaries for employees who didn't exist, The Times found. More than $11 million of county funds allegedly had been misappropriated by nonprofits between 2000 and 2010, county audits show.

Little People's World, which has repeatedly drawn scrutiny for irregular spending over the years, runs two group homes in Compton and two in Riverside County. The organization cared for about 28 children requiring high-level care because of their special needs and received about $2.5 million annually from the counties.

In 2011, the L.A. County auditor-controller identified $182,000 alleged financial improprieties. The bulk of the allegedly misappropriated money was used to purchase personal property for the Kidogos in Riverside, Northern California and Oklahoma, according to the audit. The county initiated efforts to recover the money at that time.

As auditors continued their inquiry, they learned in 2012 that large quantities of employee time cards, financial records and board of directors meeting minutes had been taken to the city dump in violation of the agency's contract with the county. Little People's World said that the mistake was inadvertent and that auditors did not inform the Department of Children and Family Services, which oversaw the contract.

In May 2013, the auditor-controller handed the Los Angeles County D.A. a second audit saying that not all the money reported in the 2011 audit had been repaid and that the Kidogos and their daughter had received "questionable" raises of up to 134% — more than making up for the amount that had been repaid. The auditor recommended that the DCFS consider ending its relationship with Little People's World.

As the financial problems surfaced, so did reports of abuse.

In 2011, state regulators reviewed surveillance video of Little People's World staffer Rashard McMorris dragging a 6-year-old across the floor and into another room. He was given a two-day suspension and training on how to respect foster youths' rights, according to county investigation reports.

Two years later, the records show, investigators from the California Department of Social Services reviewed another video of McMorris pushing an 11-year-old into a wall. The force of the child's head hitting the wall left a hole in the drywall, the records state. McMorris received training on emergency intervention techniques and was placed on conditional employment status under a plan approved by the state, according to the county reports.

Neither incident was reported to law enforcement, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services said.

In January 2014, a complaint to the county's child abuse hotline accused McMorris of punching a child in 2013. Social workers ruled the complaint unfounded, but McMorris was banned by the DCFS from further contact with Los Angeles County foster youths because of prior incidents. McMorris could not be reached for comment for this story.

Following the D.A.'s charges, DCFS Director Philip Browning removed all of the Los Angeles County children form Little People's World and canceled its contract with the county. He said he did not act sooner because he was unaware of the child abuse findings. Staff reports he received did not contain that information, he said.

Thirteen children from Riverside County remain in Little People's World homes. Jennie Pettit, assistant director of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, said social workers had stepped up their monitoring of the charity with weekly visits by social workers. The agency also verified that the nonprofit had sufficient cash on hand to care for the children and received assurances that the Kidogos would no longer be involved.

"The children are safe, and their needs are being met," Pettit said.

Dove, one of the Kidogos' attorneys, said the embezzlement charges were at odds with years of communication his clients had with the DCFS. He said Little People's World had been a licensed contractor for 30 years, often passing county audits, and "received numerous accolades" from the department.

"DCFS regularly drops the ball on training and oversight of its contractors. Then it abdicates its shortcomings to the district attorney's office for prosecution," Dove said. "DCFS should focus on getting its own house in order. Ultimately, the victims of this process may be the children in the foster care system."

"This spectacle is more about the continued dysfunction of Department of Children and Family Services than my clients' criminal culpability," Dove said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com
Twitter: @gtherolf

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